It’s official. I’m a 37 year old Camper. I spent the last 4 days in a whirlwind of lectures, gait analysis, stroke analysis, swim training and all out racing in the presence of some of the greatest triathlon coaches in the world. But what I will take away with me forever is the inspiration and sheer joy of seeing other disabled athletes break through barriers they had mentally set for themselves and come out on the other side successful and triumphant.
Each individual had their story of a terrible injury- drunk drivers, distracted drivers, boating accidents, brain tumors, chemo patients, sniper fire and things too horrific to think about. We each told our stories to each other as a form of introduction and then it was immediately forgotten. The person before us wasn’t injured in each other’s eyes. We were athletes. We were there to learn, and train, get better, and compete with the best of the best in our sport. Though some of us were missing limbs, and missing eyesight, for four days we were whole.
The Challenged Athletes Foundation based in San Diego generously hosted me and 17 other disabled triathletes for four days of intense instruction and drills. It was recently announced that Para Triathlon will be an official sport at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, and many of my friends in the disabled community have their sites set on Olympic Gold. This was the opportunity of a lifetime for each and every one of us to learn from Elite Masters’ Swim Coach and Ironman John Murray, Kona Ironman Champions and finishers Carlos Moleda, Peter Harsch, and Mark Sortino. Mark also is coaching the current US National Team.
The first full day involved swim analysis with John, where I was video-taped and discovered that my ‘blade-angle’ was changing in my hands during my stroke. On the Run analysis with Peter, who is a certified Prosthetist, he had me increase my cadence from 85-96 steps per minute on the treadmill, which was extremely difficult and awkward to maintain. However, he took the time to really explain to me how it would save my legs from injury and eventually make me a faster more efficient runner. Lastly, I had a bike fitting on a borrowed tandem by Mark, who pointed out that my left leg is much shorter than my right, which is inhibiting my pedal stroke. He quickly suggested I get a shim inserted in the cleat of my cycling shoes to fix the imbalance to prevent further issues.
We had a great dinner, and I got to hang out with one triathlete who is a personal trainer in the DC area who seemed to take his injury literally in stride and hit the ground running to get back to his beloved sport. I looked forward to spending time with my assigned mentor, Ironman finisher and current world Champion Blind Triathlete, Patricia Walsh, an engineer from Texas, who was flying in to finish her training for this year’s world Championships in London, and to show me the ropes.
Saturday was a 30 mile bike ride assigned for the morning session, followed by a track session in the afternoon. I prayed that my legs would hold out for the beating that was about to ensue. San Diego is famous for their blind tandem bike riding club known as the Blind Stoker’s club, and they generously found me a pilot to train with and his beautiful custom tandem to ride on. I didn’t find out until 36 hours later that Mike Jennings, my pilot for the weekend was a world Champion Master’s Cyclist, and that I was literally in some of the finest hands one could ask for as a blind cyclist.
Our ride took us up the canyon in Torrey Pines, near the famed Golf Course, and into the mountains. Some people rode single bikes with their prosthetic legs, some of us were on tandems, and others rode the giant hills using their hand-cycles, while laying near flat on their back as traffic whizzed by. Mike and I flew on his tandem, and the climbing was effortless due to his shifting wizardry and deft handling of even the tightest turns. On the return trip back to the Challenged Athlete’s Foundation building, we swerved suddenly, and Mike brought the bike to a smooth, steady, fast halt. He hopped off the front and went back about 15 feet to where a Diamondback Rattlesnake lay sunning itself in the middle of the bike path. A crowd began to gather as he bravely found a long tree branch and escorted the very angry three-foot fat snake up the hill to where it could no longer strike at a passing cyclist. I nearly fainted.
After our riding adventure, it was off to a local high school track to learn how to really run more efficiently. Peter and Mark took us through cadence and stepping and running drills and stretches, then tested our sense of pacing on the track. They had us do five sets of 200 meters; the first at a warmup pace, one at marathon pace, one at half marathon pace, one at 10K pace, and the last at our 5K race pace. I bombed out on my bad math skills by the second set, having gone out way too fast in my warmup pace. I learned a valuable lesson that running is a lot of math, and I’d better learn quick if I ever want to compete over longer distance at an even pace, or faster at shorter distances. It was humbling and completely educational in every way. The good news was that I was starting to feel more comfortable with the quicker cadence that Peter had me shooting for.
We had a more formal dinner that evening, and it was nice to see the group outside of exercise gear, and hear more training and racing stories from one another. Elvis had a blast hanging out with another athlete’s service dog, a gorgeous Husky owned by an elite track star named Kionte. We sat through seminars about racing, nutrition, and the rules and hierarchy of para triathlon sports, and I took fastidious notes. I grabbed a quick hot tub to soothe my muscles from the bike ride, and hit the sack early to prepare for my first West Coast open water swim and our triple Duathlon on the final day.
The early morning meeting at La Jolla Beach left me with butterflies in my stomach. While I’m really comfortable in my cozy little Long Island Sound, I kept imagining sharks and stingrays nipping at my dangling legs in the water. Mike, my tandem captain, met us there also, as he was a fairly experienced surfer, and wanted to get some swim practice in as well. As Mark was making the announcements of the morning, I turned around to see one of my favorite people in the triathlon business, Mr. Ray Kelly. Ray was the race organizer of the VERY FIRST triathlon I did as a blind athlete back in June with my guide Caroline. The race had never accomomdated a para-triathlete before, and he moved mountains to make the day fun, safe, and accessible for me. He even gave me my own award at the beginning of the ceremony. It was a day I will truly never forget thanks to him. He had recently moved from Stamford CT to San Diego, and I had secretly hoped our paths would cross again. At 7am oceanside in San Diego, here we were, about to hop into the water together. I was thrilled!
I had a great lesson with Ray, who showed me how to Dolphin dive out into the waves to increase my speed during a beach entry. He was patient while I had a few panics while getting caught in the kelp that drifted around the ocean and looked an awful lot like a giant jellyfish with long tentacles. Once I got the hang of pushing it under my body, we got into a great rhythm in the tall waves. We met a group of other athletes way out in the La Jolla Cove, and swam back and forth along some buoys that kept out the boaters and sharks.
On our way back to the shore, I spotted a giant seal, at least 300lbs swimming about 20 feet behind us. It was absolutely beautiful and so effortless, and his face looked just like a dogs. I hugged Ray and thank him for such a great experience, and we packed up and headed to the CAF Center for our Triple Duathlon.
It would be three laps of cycling 1/3 mile, followed by one lap running, and repeated 3 times at our all-out race effort pace. I was concerned about managing my asthma, but had gotten some great tips on using my inhaler more effectively by another camper, Dr. Bryon, himself an anesthesiologist. My goal was to finish as close to Patricia as possible, ideally with her within sight’s distance. This would be a real tough challenge, but a great test of the training I had done so far. To even be in the same room with Patricia was awe-inspiring, and her cool, calm, focus and great advice was so wonderful to have at my disposal.
Mike and I had a powerful first lap, gaining a 1 minute lead on Patricia and her guide. Going from a complete stop to sprinting took its toll on my sensitive lungs, and I found myself practicing deep, forced exhales to clear the Carbon Dioxide from my lungs as they began to burn. Mike smartly slowed as we came into the transition area so I could regain my breathing and get out fast on the run. My transition was perfect- helmet off, shoes off, running shoes on, tether on, and visor and I hooked onto running guide John’s capable arm and away we went. I was on cloud nine! I knew, however that the great lead I had built on the bike and transition would be a fleeting moment as Patricia is a fast, skilled runner, often running 6:30 minute miles to my pokey 9:30 pace.
I reminded myself that I had two more rotations of this sprint, and not to put it all out on my first run lap, or I would completely run out of gas. I sighed as she and her guide passed me smoothly late on the run lap in frustration, but smiled also to know that I was still within the sightline of her and could perhaps catch her again on the next bike lap.
The transition went so smoothly that I actually got out before Patricia and her guide and Mike was ready to rock the bike again. He helped me do some deep breathing to get the wheezing under control, and we gained back more than a minute lead again. I was having the time of my life. I knew that the run would yield the same result, but became more confident in my biking skills that at least I could keep myself in the mix as a contender. I had my fastest transition from bike to run on the last lap, and my fastest run lap thanks to John carefully monitoring my breathing and pace into the finish line. We were bested by only 30 seconds; a major accomplishment!
After our duathlon, Mike took me for a tour of San Diego, including a drive along the coast, coffee overlooking the swimming seals, watching the paragliders take off from the cliffs, and delicious Mexican food with his sweetheart Andrea, overlooking the sunset. It was a magical end to an amazing weekend. I feel so blessed to have been in the presence of and to learn from these great coaches, mentors, and other athletes who all want to see us get to the finish line and achieve our goals. I cannot thank the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the coaches, my guides and the volunteers enough. Elvis and I hope to make you all proud this year at the National Championships and to take each and every piece of information and advice and put it to good use. And to all the challenged athletes that I trained and raced with this weekend, THANK YOU for sharing your stories and allowing us to be a part of your journey.